In response to the novel coronavirus, lawmakers authorized two direct payments to Americans. The first, provided by the CARES Act, was worth up to $1,200 per eligible adult and $500 for each eligible child dependent. The second, authorized by a $900 billion relief bill signed into law in December, was worth up to $600 per eligible adult and dependent child. Most Americans have now received the money for both of those payments.  

When the money was appropriated, Congress authorized the IRS to distribute the payments. As a result, you may be wondering whether you need to file taxes to get a stimulus check. The answer to this question is a bit more complicated than it may seem. 

Burlap bag full of $100 bills.

Image source: Getty Images.

Here's the rule on tax filing and stimulus checks

When stimulus checks were authorized, the requirements for eligibility did not include filing or paying taxes. In other words, if your income is so low that you don't have to file a tax return, you were still eligible for the payment. 

However, the IRS did use information from your past returns both to determine eligibility and to find your financial information to deliver your check. In other words, if you didn't file a return in 2018 or in 2019, you were still eligible for a check, but the IRS wouldn't have known where to find you to pay you your money. 

To get around this problem, the IRS collected information from the Social Security Administration (SSA) and the VA so it could send out checks to individuals who receive these benefits but don't file returns. The agency also set up an online form for non-filers that people could use to provide the necessary details for the IRS to send their stimulus payments. Those who don't get SSA or VA benefits and who don't file returns were able to use this form. And individuals who do get benefits could also use the non-filers form to alert the IRS to their dependents and claim the stimulus money for them (the SSA and VA wouldn't have had this information). 

Because of this form, it was not necessary for non-filers to submit a tax return to get their stimulus money. However, the deadline for using the form for non-filers has now passed, and the form is closed. As a result, if you did not get your stimulus payment(s) yet, or you didn't receive the full amount owed, you will have to file a 2020 tax return to claim your payment.

You'll now have to file a return because the stimulus payments that were made were an advance on a tax credit. It's late to get the advance but not too late to claim the credit, which is being referred to as a Recovery Rebate Credit. 

There's also another scenario where you may have to file a return to claim your credit. Stimulus payments had a cut-off based on income. If your income was too high in 2018 or 2019 but has fallen in 2020, you'd be eligible for a payment, but the IRS wouldn't know it. You can file your 2020 returns and show you're now entitled to the Recovery Rebate Credit even if it appeared before that you weren't. 

So, what's the bottom line with all these rules?

While this may seem complicated, here are the basics of what you need to know:

  1. Submitting a tax return wasn't a condition of being eligible for a stimulus check.
  2. But the IRS used tax-return data to determine how to pay out stimulus money.
  3. Those who hadn't filed a 2018 or 2019 return had to provide their information using a non-filers form (unless the IRS could get their data from the VA or Social Security Administration).
  4. The deadline for using the non-filers form has passed, so you now have to file a return to claim the Recovery Rebate Credit and let the IRS know of your eligibility.
  5. If your 2018 or 2019 returns showed too much income to be eligible for a stimulus check, but your 2020 returns show an income below eligibility thresholds, you also have to file a return to claim your credit.

The good news is, if you didn't file a return in the past but you submit one this year to claim your stimulus check, the IRS will have your information on file going forward. If the Biden Administration is successful in passing legislation providing a third stimulus payment, the IRS will have your updated information, and you should get the third payment without further action on your part.